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Inside the Ateliers of Chanel, Couture’s Radical Refusal to Change

By Renée Batchelor

Chanel ecru jacket in tweed embellished with braid. Skirt in ecru tweed and white silk tulle. White chasuble in silk tulle. Black and white shoes in velvet and patent leather.
 
Chris Colls
Chanel ecru jacket in tweed embellished with braid. Skirt in ecru tweed and white silk tulle. White chasuble in silk tulle. Black and white shoes in velvet and patent leather.

The scene is serene and almost peaceful the day before Chanel’s Haute Couture Spring/Summer show in mid-January at the couture ateliers that sit on the upper floors of the brand’s legendary Rue Cambon address. It is sunny outside, though the wind is brisk. But inside the atelier it is warm and light-filled. A radio softly plays the strains of the Beach Boys as petits mains (seamstresses) are hard at work putting the finishing touches to delicate yet intricate couture pieces that will grace the runways of the Grand Palais in 24 hours.

A man is painstakingly sewing on an exquisite bridal veil — the pièce de résistance that was embroidered for Chanel by embroidery house Lesage. It will be paired with a knee-length, belted bridal gown as the show’s final look the following day. Elsewhere, sumptuous silk linings are stitched into hand-woven tweed jackets and cream-coloured sequins — strung lengthwise like a stack of coins, rather than sewed on flat — are being painstakingly assembled and stitched onto the fabric. This is laborious and time-consuming work, but also takes a certain patience and stillness that seems almost alien amidst the bustle of the busy streets just below us. There is a sense of anticipation in the air, but also a reassuring calm.

I meet Madame Cécile, the première (supervisor) at the Atelier Flou. (The word “flou” in French roughly translates to hazy or vaporific. But in fashion, it refers to the more unstructured pieces in a collection, like gowns and dresses that embody the terms “floaty” and “flowing.” And in this case, the atelier that creates non-tailored pieces.) Madame Cécile’s job is to transform the vision of Chanel’s artistic director Virginie Viard into finished pieces, overseeing the work of around 25 seamstresses that make up the flou atelier. She explains to us that she has about four weeks to create each haute couture collection from start to finish — a short period considering the craftsmanship behind each look.

In Paris last January, T paid a visit to Chanel’s ateliers ahead of the Haute Couture Spring/Summer ’20 show — and took note of the facts behind its craftsmanship.

 

The process starts with a discussion on the inspiration and vision for each particular look with Viard, followed by creation of a toile: a sample prototype that is often rendered in calico. It takes two days from the first input from Viard to the rendering of the toile, and the process goes on back and forth over the next few weeks depending on the intricacy of the design and tweaks that need to be made. When I ask about the challenges in the creation process, be they technical or otherwise, Madame Cécile simply says, “[The challenge] is to translate the vision of our artistic director. So we have to materialise and create in three dimensions her vision. As for the fabrics, sometimes we leave them as they are and sometimes we have to work to make them fall or move in the right way.” Even a piece that may seem simple, like a delicate white top devoid of embellishment, actually takes tens of hours of handwork to carefully pleat and sew.

As to how the pieces are assigned to the seamstresses and tailors that work in the atelier, Madame Cécile explains that there is not a dedicated person or team to do a certain style or technique. “Everybody is supposed to be able to do everything, but we can feel a sensibility for certain fabrics, so perhaps the division is done like that,” she says. I notice a jaunty, knee-length, gingham taffeta dress with beading at the bodice that is both schoolgirl-inspired but strikingly modern for a couture piece, and ask where the inspiration comes from. “Each look has a specific story. We will discuss it, and step by step we create the process. It can be imagining a schoolgirl after school with a small, white collar. Each designer has their own way of working, but that’s the way we work with Virginie — it’s really a dialogue.”

Chris CollsChanel bustier dress in navy blue crêpe georgette embellished with a black silk tulle stole and a jewelled buckle.
Chanel bustier dress in navy blue crêpe georgette embellished with a black silk tulle stole and a jewelled buckle.

Elsewhere in the Atelier Tailleur, a fit model is present while the première, Madame Jacqueline, is deep in discussion with her team after a fitting, with Viard present, in the downstairs studio. Tailleur (which means tailor in French), in this case, refers to many of the brand’s tailor-made tweed skirt and pantsuits, which can include a long jacket combined with pieces done by the flou atelier or a more structured dress. In the tailleur atelier three people work on the finishing of a striking, ankle-length cotton tweed dress with black and white stripes, cosy pockets and a funnel neckline. (On the runway the dress will flow as though it is cut from one piece of cloth and skim flatteringly over the model’s curves. But up-close, I can see it actually consists of three panels that have been so precisely cut and lined up that they appear seamless.) 

In a similar vein, the two ateliers may occupy different physical spaces, but have to work together to ensure uniformity runs through the collection. “The ateliers work very closely. We do the first fittings together so that we can discuss and have harmony in the collection,” says Madame Cécile. I ask if the team will be working late today, and she assures us that they will not, as everything is always well-organised and planned. That seems to be the Chanel way.

The Show

The next day at the Grand Palais, the closely guarded inspiration for this Spring/Summer ’20 collection becomes quite apparent. The space has been transformed into the cloisters of a convent, specifically Aubazine Abbey (which is located in the region of Corèzze in south-western France), where Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was sent to as a young girl. There, Gabrielle Chanel was made to don an austere, black and white uniform that would later be the inspiration for her house’s signature colours and in this collection the palette is similarly limited to black, white, grey and cream — with a few pastel additions.

Chris CollsChanel white pleated bridal dress in crêpe georgette embellished with jewelled buttons. White veil in tulle embroidered with a floral motif. White belt embroidered with sequins, Black and white shoes in velvet and patent leather.
Chanel white pleated bridal dress in crêpe georgette embellished with jewelled buttons. White veil in tulle embroidered with a floral motif. White belt embroidered with sequins, Black and white shoes in velvet and patent leather.

At the centre of the set is an unkempt garden, meant to be a recreation of the one Viard had seen in her visit to Aubazine. Enclosing the space where guests sit are antique linen sheets hung out as though left to dry by the convent’s (imaginary) inhabitants. Besides the styling of the show — white ankle socks and black velvet and patent schoolgirl-style shoes — there are standout elements, like the oversized collars — some in Peter Pan style, Puritan and sailor-inspired. Others are rendered in guipure, while a few are heavily embellished and even layered one on top of each other for a more exaggerated effect.

Elements from Aubazine flow through the collection, though they may not be obvious at first glance. A pastel, crochet fabric with a sequin overlay that I had seen at the atelier the previous day, evokes the convent’s Cistercian stained glass windows, while the building’s grey, stone floors that are arranged in a grid pattern, have inspired the subtle quilting, not just in today’s couture pieces but in Chanel’s entire design heritage.

There is also a lightness, ease and modernity to all the 62 looks that make it down the square-shaped runway. Soft tulle falls over heavy tweed skirt suits while beautifully embroidered flowers embellish sheer tops and flowing ballgown skirts for an elegant, peekaboo effect. Many of the designs come with pockets and the models move effortlessly even in the slim, ankle-length gowns. There is nothing stuffy or restrictive about this haute couture collection. The aforementioned bride is modest in long sleeves and a button-up bodice, but thoroughly modern thanks to the knee-skimming length and summer-appropriate fabric. To the uninformed observer, her embroidered veil is perhaps the only hint at the level of skill and man hours that have gone into the look. But to understand couture is to appreciate the finer details in a piece, from the life-like flourish of an embroidered flower to the intricacy of a bespoke button. While these elements are assembled in the brand’s haute couture ateliers, many are first conceived and brought to life by specialised workshops called the Métiers d’art.

The Métiers d’Art

To learn more about Chanel’s relationship with its Métiers d’art (translated directly to art professions), I take a trip later that same day, to Pantin, a suburb of Paris, to visit two workshops, Lesage and Lemarié. They are the sources of the embroidery and tweed (Lesage) and flowers (Lemarié) that enlivened much of the collection that morning. Chanel began to acquire these specialist workshops, each considered the top in their field, in 1985. It now has 34 Métiers d’art under its wing — among them, glovemaker Causse and milliner Maison Michel. These exist today under a subsidiary of the brand called Paraffection.

Chris CollsChanel white coat in satiny organza and guipure lace inlaid with floral motifs embellished with jewelled buttons and pockets embroidered with sequins. Black and white shoes in velvet and patent leather.
Chanel white coat in satiny organza and guipure lace inlaid with floral motifs embellished with jewelled buttons and pockets embroidered with sequins. Black and white shoes in velvet and patent leather.

Lesage itself was founded in 1858 by embroiderer Michonet, who supplied the couturiers of the time including Charles Frédérik Worth and Madame Vionnet. It was taken over in 1924 by Albert and Marie-Louise Lesage, and was run by their son François Lesage, up to his death in 2011. Initially specialising just in embroidery, Lesage diversified to produce textiles in the 1990s and started offering tweed to Chanel in 1998. Upon my arrival, I am invited to view some of the 75,000 embroidery samples that exist in its expansive archives. A box from the 1980s or early 1990s reveals that embroidery like any art form is also subjected to trends and eras — much of what is in the box is reminiscent of the flashier and more colourful embroidery that was favoured during the period. The samples that made it to the Chanel Spring/Summer ’20 Haute Couture show have a much more subdued palette and style.

A tour of Lesage’s workshops reveals that embroidery is as time-consuming a task as one imagines it to be. From the initial sample of a design proposed by Lesage, the workshop will then receive a pattern from Chanel for an item of clothing or accessory — such as the bridal veil — that will eventually be embroidered. The initial pattern is then translated into an extended embroidered whole with a “map” made on tracing paper that will indicate the colour and kinds of beads to be used — for the artisans to follow. Next, a new copy of this draft is created, this time with special holes punched in for the embroiderers’ needles, before a final chalk transfer is drafted again on paper taking into account how exactly the artisans will work on the fabric.

When each new piece is begun, the final drawing will be placed beneath the embroidery frame as a guide. Embroiders then work using either a needle or a Luneville hook — a stick with a needle at the end — to sew on either the reverse or right side of the material. The artisans work swiftly. Beads are strung and tacked on with great dexterity, but again there is an air of almost meditative calm in the workshop space. Rows of gleaming beads or strips of coloured embroidery suddenly appear as if by magic on the material as the fingers of the artisans dance above their respective frames.

Later that day I meet with Hubert Barrère, the artistic director of Lesage who has been with the house for nine years. He tells me that the artisans that Lesage employs includes designers, embroiderers as well as weavers and that the raw materials that it works with to create its fine embroidery are sourced from all over the world. It sounds almost like an exotic, medieval fairy tale. Golden threads and sequins come from India while the tiniest and the most beautiful beads are produced by Miyuki, a Japanese company. However, good silks, ribbons and what he proclaims are the best sequins in the world, all come from France. Embroidery samples are kept exclusive to the companies that they were created for. While they can be brought out from the archives and reimagined for the same house, Lesage will never allow another brand to use them. There’s a reason those are kept on the most hard-to-reach shelves.

It is clear that Lesage has a very close relationship with Chanel and similarly that Barrère has worked closely with Viard for some time. “I’ve known Virginie (Viard) for a long time... more than 25 years. The conversation starts with a theme she has in mind. She explained to me that the venue was an interpretation of the Aubazine garden. Aubazine is a monastery where Mademoiselle Chanel was at when she was young. The inspiration was the beginning of the story of Chanel,” says Barrère. Embroidery, like any art form, is a deeply personal business. So Barrère hopped on a train to Aubazine so he too could have a look at and get a feel for the place before creating and proposing the embroidery samples for this collection.

Chris CollsLeft: Chanel black slit dress in crêpe georgette embellished with a Peter Pan collar and cuffs in white silk organza embroidered with beads. Black belt embroidered with beads and sequins. Black and white shoes in velvet and patent leather. Right: Chanel black and white dress in lace and silk tulle embroidered with blue flowers and embellished with jewelled buttons.
Left: Chanel black slit dress in crêpe georgette embellished with a Peter Pan collar and cuffs in white silk organza embroidered with beads. Black belt embroidered with beads and sequins. Black and white shoes in velvet and patent leather. Right: Chanel black and white dress in lace and silk tulle embroidered with blue flowers and embellished with jewelled buttons.

Barrère met the residents at Aubazine who had their own memories of Gabrielle Chanel, thanks to recollections shared by past inhabitants who knew her as a young girl. “It is interesting because if you go to Aubazine, all the codes of Chanel are there. There is the CC in the windows of the church and on the floor you have the Maltese cross. All these things inspired Chanel’s codes. When I saw this, it was very easy to create the embroidery,” says Barrère. Once back in Paris, Barrère and Viard held discussions on the some of the possible inspirations drawn from Barrère’s trip to Aubazine. Viard’s suggestions included keeping references for flowers to simple and fresh as a nod to the monastery’s charming but unsophisticated garden, and that the church’s stained glass windows could also be incorporated into the embroidery.

Barrère’s team of 15 designers then imagined and created samples and worked with Viard on those that she wanted to use and those she wanted to combine or adapt. “The key is to have a sense of culture and to know the codes and the stories behind Chanel. You also need to sense the mood of today and feel what is contemporary,” says Barrère. “Virginie is the chief and we are around her to make her dream materialise.” To my surprise, Barrère’s visit to Aubazine was just five weeks prior to the show and his team started work on it in the second week of December. It is indeed a paradox that such an involved process must be done rather quickly.

To be a skilled embroiderer, Barrère believes that one must train for at least eight years and he finds it amusing that history seems to agree with him. “I saw in an embroidery exhibition in the Cluny Museum that in the middle ages, in order to be a good embroiderer, it was necessary to have training of eight years,” he says. Today this rings true when one adds up the four years in design school where the technique is first learned, adding to that the four years in the workshop where rapidity of skill and true perfection of the method is acquired. When I ask how long it took to create the most intricate embroidery pieces for this collection, Barrère jokes that couture is not quite the business of accounting. “Of course it is long work, but the result is such that you forget it,” says Barrère. However, he says that on average a detailed and embellished couture dress might take 500 to 800 hours to create, while the most elaborate creations worthy of becoming museum exhibits could take up to 2,000 hours.

Elsewhere in Lesage, I peek into the weaving workshops where tweed is woven by hand and the rhythmic clack of the traditional looms punctuate the air. The samples for tweed are made here in Lesage before they are produced in larger quantities in the south of France. To create a lighter tweed for the summer months, the weaving technique is tweaked and there is more space left between the threads. For couture, the tweed weave is even more refined than the kind you would typically find in ready-to-wear pieces.

Chris CollsLeft: Chanel long black and white striped dress in cotton tweed embellished with jewelled buttons. Black shoes in velvet and patent leather. Right: Chanel black and white dress in tulle tweed and cotton piqué embellished with jewelled buttons. Black and white shoes in velvet and patent leather.
Left: Chanel long black and white striped dress in cotton tweed embellished with jewelled buttons. Black shoes in velvet and patent leather. Right: Chanel black and white dress in tulle tweed and cotton piqué embellished with jewelled buttons. Black and white shoes in velvet and patent leather.

Finally, I meet with Sophie Waintraub, the director of Lemarié, one of the last few plumassiers in Paris. Like Lesage, Lemarié’s history stretches back more than a century to 1880. Besides creating feathers for everything from dresses to hats, the house has also made flowers since the 1940s. Chanel’s signature is the camellia, but for the couture collection, the flowers that dot the gowns and tops run the gamut of blooms. Waintraub explains that flowers begin their life as paintings and then from there, the fabrics are prepared, starched and cut before they are assembled. “Virginie works with our creative director and she gives us the theme of the collection and then our creative department creates samples. From there, it is a conversation on the colours and styles that she wants,” explains Waintraub. I ask her about the materials these flowers can be made from and she says that the possibilities are endless. “We can work with lace, silk, tulle, plastic and leather. There is no limit,” she says. She shows me little butterflies that Lemarié has created for this collection and notes that individual petals of the flowers are all hand-painted. The final pieces are then sent to Chanel to be assembled at the haute couture atelier. While the show took place earlier that day, Waintraub notes that the work goes on throughout the year, and haute couture clients have the privilege to reference past seasons’ creations when personalising their own orders.

In the Lemarié workshops, artisans of all ages work on creating the house’s exquisite flowers. Some specialise in painting, while others create the petals of the flowers, from starching the fabric to heating the petals to shape their subtle curves. Creating even the simplest white camellia takes at least 45 minutes by a trained artisan and is done completely by hand using a boule (a ball-shaped implement that can be heated on a flame) to create the frame and shape the petals. “If you’ve never seen it you can’t imagine the work a camellia needs. It’s a long expertise to learn. It takes several years to really have the good hands to do what she does,” Waintraub says as we observe an artisan at work. Around 20 people work on the flowers in Lemarié. After they are created, a team then works on the precise placement of flowers on 3D models so that patterns can be easily and accurately replicated for clients.

Elsewhere in the plumassier arm, a separate crew of artisans steam, sort, measure and trim the feathers before they are dyed and assembled. I ask Waintraub how Lemarié ensures that these highly specialised skills will continue to be passed down, and she says that renewal is always ongoing. “We work with schools and we have a lot of interns that come here throughout the year. There are a lot of young people who want to learn about feather- and flower-making techniques. It’s easier to find people for couture techniques but there are schools in Paris that teach flower- and feather-making and we work with them,” she says. Innovation is also important amidst the continuation of timeworn techniques. “Both are important. We need to work with new fabrics like neoprene and we also create new cutting tools to develop new flowers, and also promote new ways of doing things,” says Waintraub.

And it is at this juncture that modern couture sits. There is that important tension between old and new: history and innovation. It is comforting to see men and women of different ages in these workshops as apprentices and eventually artisans, continuing to learn, use and propagate these techniques. While haute couture may be for the privileged few today, it was not always the case, with Gabrielle Chanel herself working exclusively on bespoke creations during her time at Chanel. But seeing the expertise up close and noting the care and significance accorded to every last detail is heartening. These houses and Métiers d’art have succession plans in place, while a willing new generation of couturiers and artisans will ensure that couture will never become a lost art.

On the cover of T’s March 2020 “Women’s Fashion” issue, a spread — a confection of Chanel’s haute couture pieces photographed by Chris Colls,  modelled by Kris Grikaite — is paired with a story that spotlights the inner-workings of Chanel’s Haute Couture collections.
On the cover of T’s March 2020 “Women’s Fashion” issue, a spread — a confection of Chanel’s haute couture pieces photographed by Chris Colls, modelled by Kris Grikaite — is paired with a story that spotlights the inner-workings of Chanel’s Haute Couture collections.

Related story: Behind the Scenes | Couture in Numbers

Photographs by Chris Colls
Styled by Jack Wang and Jumius Wong
Model: Kris Grikaite (The Lions)
Hair by Ward Stegerhoek (The Wall Group)
Makeup by Romy Soleimani The Wall Group)
Manicure by Maki Sakamoto (The Wall Group)
Producer: Anna Rybus (Prospero Production), Dejan Poletan (Serlin Associates)
Photographer’s agent: Philippa Serlin (Serlin Associates), Dejsn Poletan (Serlin Associates)
Fashion market editor: Eric McSherry
Casting director: Neill Seeto (IMA Casting)
Photographer’s assistant: Daniil Zaikin
Digital assistant: Jeanne Robinson
Stylist’s assistants: Kristen Antonio, Cody Feliciano, Rahil Chunawala
Hair Assistant: Brian Casey
Makeup assistant: Marco Campos